Reflections on the Trans-Mongolian railway journey

The Trans-Mongolian, and to a greater extent its more famous sibling the Trans-Siberian, seems to hold an almost mythical appeal for people. Often when describing our year-long trip to someone the part that they would be most excited about was this train journey. Countless people told me that it was on their bucket list. It was precisely because the trip was so well known that it made its way into our itinerary early on in the planning phase.

You hear a lot of stories romanticising the trip, the faded elegance of the trains, sitting in your cabin watching the frozen wastes of Siberia pass by, swapping vodka and food with Russian locals. We heard tales that sounded much more intrepid as well – passengers trying to hide illegal imports as they crossed borders or carriages full of locals merrily shotting vodka. I even read one story where a Russian passenger pulled out a gun.

The train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

Now that we’ve completed the Trans-Mongolian, we thought we would share some of our thoughts about it. Obviously everyone’s trip is different and experiences will vary depending on where you stop, the types of trains you choose and the people in your carriage. So here is our version.

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Crossing the border from Mongolia to Russia

Stocked up with a huge bag of snacks we boarded our train in Ulaan Baatar for an 8:30pm departure. We were in a cabin with two Thai guys who were pretty friendly.

The first night was pretty uneventful but the next morning we were woken at 7am by the carriage attendant saying “toilet – station, toilet – station”. You’re not allowed to use the train toilet while it’s stopped and we were at the Mongolian border point. I decided to wait for a bit and in the meantime a man came down the corridor offering to exchange money. We only had 70 tugrik (~NZ$0.04) left. He was pretty unimpressed. So I offered it to him for 1 rouble (~NZD$0.02) and he took it off my hands.

I was stoked that we had so neatly used up all of our Mongolian money until I realised that we needed to pay for the toilet. One of the Thai guys kindly gave me the 200 tugrik (~NZ$0.12) that I needed. I got off the train and turned out that our carriage was all alone at the station. We had obviously been attached to a domestic Mongolian train for the first part of the trip and were going to be attached to a Russian domestic train for the second part. In the meantime we were all alone.

Our solo train carriage

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The Ger District in Ulaan Baatar

We felt much better after showering and sleeping in a soft bed. Our first day back in Ulaan Baatar was very productive, we bought train tickets to Irkutsk, checked out the State Department Store and went to a bank to withdraw 3 million tugrik to pay for our tour. Sunpath didn’t accept credit cards so for a brief moment we were millionaires with a huge stack of cash. Dolla dolla bills y’all.

For our last two nights in Mongolia we had booked to stay in an AirBnB ger in the Ger District. To be honest we felt like we’d had enough experience sleeping in gers by this point, but we had heard so much about the Ger District from Billy that we were still reasonably keen to check it out.

Chnggis Khan statue, Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaan Baatar

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Mongolian Gobi Desert Tour: The places we visited

The tour was really much more about experiencing the vast expanse of the Gobi, staying with nomads in gers and eating local food. But most days we went to visit some sort of ‘place of interest’. Really I’m listing them to show you all of Andy’s sweet photos.

Sand dunes

The dunes were enormous: 180km long, up to 37km wide and the tallest is 300m high. They were also partially covered in snow which was pretty novel. We climbed up to the top of one.

Sand dunes

Flaming cliffs

So named because at sunrise and sunset they look red and on fire. Lots of dinosaur fossils have been found here, including a famous one of a carnivore and a herbivore fighting. We didn’t find any fossils but did spot a rare creature – the Brittanosaurus Rex.

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Mongolian Gobi Desert Tour: The experience

I tried writing a day-by-day account of the rest of our tour, but it was pretty repetitive. Drive three hours, eat lunch, see something, drive three hours, eat dinner, sleep. Instead I’ve tried to give an idea of what the tour was like overall.

Driving

The tour required a hell of a lot of driving. Really it was too much driving and by about day 7 we were pretty driven-out. Mongolian scenery, although very beautiful, gets a bit samey after a while. But I don’t think it’s the tour’s fault. Mongolia is really big with very few roads, to see anything interesting you have to drive hundreds of kilometres off road.

No roads here

Some of the off-road driving was a bit rugged, think knee deep snow, ice and rutted out roads. In total we got stuck five times. We learnt that Mongolian drivers will refuse to estimate drive time because it’s unlucky, instead they will quote travel distances. As the days passed the snow melted and mud became the new problem. A few times the back of the van slid out on a greasy section. Jarra would just laugh, restart the engine and keep driving as before.

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Mongolian Gobi Desert Tour: Brittany gets sick

The next day we set off driving again and made it back to a sealed road and to a different town for lunch. I started to feel really hot and headachy at lunch which wasn’t so great. In the afternoon we drove off the side of the road again to visit a national park. We stopped by a narrow valley which we walked up to visit a frozen waterfall. On the way I started feeling really sick, I made it to the waterfall but ended up vomiting in the snow on the way back. Gross.

Walking up the valley pre-vomit

The guides immediately leapt into action proposing a number of Mongolian remedies. First up was vodka. A lot of vodka. Like a 70 ml shot. When in Mongolia…? As a precautionary measure I got out of the van before drinking it, but it was actually not as bad as expected. Maybe the Mongolians were onto something? Or maybe not. I vomited for the second time on the side of the road shortly after.

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Mongolian Gobi Desert Tour: Day 1

In the morning Andy and I raced out to try and buy crucial supplies for our tour – toilet paper, wet wipes and snacks. After successfully re-supplying, we set off on tour in a Soviet-style van. Inside we met one of our guides, Serjei, and two German guys, Ryan and Mavine. We were told there were also three other Germans in a second van.

We set out and quickly left the city behind and entered into the Mongolian countryside. Although we were on a sealed road it was still pretty bumpy and our driver Jarra was frequently swerving to avoid potholes. The view from the car was kind of hard to appreciate because the van’s windows were low compared to the seats. To get a decent view out we either had to slouch down or lean forward in awkward game of personal-space-invaders with the Germans seated in front of us. To complete the atmosphere Jarra was playing Mongolian music constantly, which included the occasional interlude of a neighing horse between songs. 

Mongolia Tour Day 1 - DSC06563

Our tour vans

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Border crossing from China to Mongolia

We awoke to blue skies on our final day in China. Trust Beijing’s smog to clear just as we leave. Making our way to the Beijing Train Station was pretty straightforward, although there was chaos and a tonne of people right around the station. Once we passed through ticket/passport check and secuirity we easily found our waiting room. It was surprisingly fancy – look at the chandeliers and the detail on the ceiling:

Beijing Station waiting room

Fancy waiting room ceiling

We boarded the train and our carriage attendant showed us to our cabin. It turned out the train was pretty much empty, our whole carriage only had a couple of other people in it and we had a cabin to ourselves which was pretty luxurious. We promptly spread all of our stuff out and tucked into our many bags of snacks. I’m pretty sure Andy was aiming to have a hot drink on the hour, every hour, rotating between coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

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